If Millikan was CENIS's organizer, Rostow was its inspiration, its "shining light," according to Higgins. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Rostow went to Yale at age sixteen, finished in three years, and went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. While still in his teens he decided with characteristic prepossession to devote his life to "two large ideas: one is the application of modern economic theory and statistical analysis to economic history; and the other is the relation-ship between economic factors and society as a whole." The force of his ideas was magnified by his gusto for expressing them. "Walt can write faster than I can read," President John Kennedy quipped.
As an army captain in World War II, Rostow had participated in an operation that foreshadowed his later work in development. Along with Charles P. Kindleberger and Carl Kaysen, both of whom would also be leading figures in postwar economics, he served as a bombing targeter in the Economic Warfare Division of the London embassy. There the young economists debated how best to dismantle the German economy from the air, whether the whole system had to be taken down together or if there might be specific points—a ball bearing factory or a refinery—that could be removed, bringing the entire war machine to a halt. "We sought target systems where the destruction of the minimum number of targets would have the greatest, most prompt, and most long-lasting direct military effect," Rostow later remembered. In the run-up to the Normandy invasion, the targeters oscillated—just as development theorists later would—between a "systems" approach and a "bottleneck" approach, with Rostow on the systems side arguing for a comprehensive attack on German oil refineries and bridges. He lost the argument when General Dwight D. Eisenhower opted to hit the railroad marshaling yards in northern France. CENIS gave him a chance to prove his original judgment. Development was simply the opposite of bombardment, involving dropping in ingredients that would produce the quickest and longest-lasting economic (and political) gains.
Through CENIS, Rostow forged a consensus behind a developmental strategy known as the Big Push, "a development effort on all fronts," according to Higgins, "on a scale large enough to bring increases in productivity that would outrun population growth and promote structural change." Instead of targeting the industrial sector as import substitution did, large amounts of aid should go into "social overhead capital" such as education, administration, transport, and law. Properly timed, aid could generate a systemwide disruption that would shake a society from its traditional torpor and lift it into the modern age. The Big Push, sometimes called "balanced" development, was also a critique of President Eisenhower's aid programs, which were regarded as piecemeal efforts aimed at frontline states and with political strings attached. Development had to be an unconditional, massive, sustained effort, conveying the message, Rostow argued, "that we are in Asia to stay, not merely in a military sense, but politically and economically as well."
In memoranda and articles during the 1950s and in two seminal books, The Process of Economic Growth (1952) and The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), Rostow elaborated a vision of development rooted in American history and national interest. Updating Comte's formula, he observed that each society passes through five identifiable stages. In the opening phase, tradition, society's tranquil rhythms are regulated by the harvest and disturbed only by natural calamity. As pre-Newtonian attitudes give way to a scientific under-standing of the natural world, societies enter a stage of accumulation. The fund of social overhead capital grows unevenly. Social investments are "lumpy," he argued, and private investors are unwilling to tolerate the high initial costs, long gestation periods, and indirect returns. The state, therefore, has the primary role in nurturing social capital, as state and local governments did in the United States between 1815 and 1840.
As obstacles to growth are cleared and modern habits and attitudes gain momentum, the society reaches a stage Rostow memorably named "takeoff." "During the takeoff," he wrote in Stages, "new industries expand rapidly, yielding profits a large proportion of which are reinvested in new plant…. The new class of entrepreneursexpands; and it directs the enlarging flows of investment." Modernization planes along the lumpy surface of social overhead capital, bearing itself aloft on the force of its own acceleration. Rostow's aeronautical image highlighted not only his sense of the sharpness of the transition, a change in both the kind and direction of growth, but the dangers of this stage, for it is at the moment of takeoff that crosswinds, mechanical flaws, or pilot error are most likely to prove fatal. Takeoff, for Rostow, was a period of cultural, technological, and political upheaval, and its forward trajectory could either continue toward maturity (the fourth stage) or suffer a violent interruption or diversion onto a dysfunctional nationalist or communist route to modernity.
By measuring the ratio of investment to national income, Rostow could calculate when a nation would reach takeoff and how much aid it could usefully absorb. Within a few years the National Security Council used "absorptive capacity" as its principle criterion for aid. The United States passed into takeoff just prior to the Civil War, and it appeared to Rostow in the 1950s that both India and the People's Republic of China were entering this stage. He anticipated that the contest between the two nations, "the one under Communism, the one under democratic rule—would constitute a kind of pure ideological test of great significance" for the United States and the world. Rostow's theory redefined the Cold War as a contest fought on the terrain of development, and he advanced a number of arguments for a stronger American effort. By easing the transition to modernity, he told CIA director Allen Dulles, the United States could steal a march on history by creating an "environment in which societies which directly or indirectly menace ours will not evolve." Failing to do so would concede "to Moscow and Peking the dangerous mystique that only Communism can transform underdeveloped societies." The cost would also be limited. By targeting nations just reaching takeoff, the United States could exercise a decisive influence without incurring an indefinite obligation.
The United States own level of development provided another imperative for action. Rostow concluded that the United States had reached the terminal stage of the modernization process, the stage of high mass consumption, but its position there was insecure. High population growth, a deficit of social overhead capital, and the cost of the arms race created drags that might cause it to lose altitude. A steady flow of raw materials was essential. Preserving the U.S. fragile forward momentum required expanding world trade and energizing external markets for U.S. products. Rostow warned policymakers not to draw a false dichotomy between humanitarianism and selfishness. In development, the national interest and the interest of mankind were inseparable.
Rostow assigned an important role to soldiers during the transitional period. Assembling the preconditions for takeoff, he believed, required the efforts of an elite coalition of landowners, merchants, and politicians who favored centralization and were "prepared to deal with the enemies of this objective." Military men were the natural leaders of this movement, and throughout his career Rostow argued that military regimes could supply the stability and administrative competence needed for development. The Mann Doctrine of 1964, which made stability rather than democracy the prime goal of U.S. policy in Latin America during the Johnson administration, would later echo Rostow's reasoning.
Extending the stages-of-growth framework to the Soviet Union, Rostow refuted assumptions that Soviet development presented an alternative to the model of the capitalist West. By his reckoning, Stalin's forced modernization resembled the path taken by the United States some thirty years earlier; the principal difference was in its "abnormal" emphasis on the military and industrial sectors. To Rostow, communism was not the agent of modernization but a side effect of it. It was a "disease of the transitional process" likely to spread in any nation during the early, difficult stages of development. Instead of accelerating growth, it disfigured it, producing an unbalanced and dysfunctional modernity. Rostow's avowed aim was to supplant Marx as the inspiration for revolutionary intellectuals (the subtitle of Stages is A Non-Communist Manifesto ), and he presented his doctrine as a universal theory of history.
Rostow's syntheses standardized the vocabulary used by the CENIS and Social Science Research Council groups, and the theories they produced are appropriately referred to as "Rostovian," although other members contributed significant innovations. Lucian Pye placed newly independent regimes on the psychoanalyst's couch and interpreted Southeast Asian communism in light of Erik Erikson's concept of "identity crisis." Both nationalist leaders and their constituents suffered from incoherent, immature identities that made them resentful of their modernized elders. Because "individuals can become reasonably acculturated far faster than societies can be reconstructed," modernizing societies underwent a "revolution of rising expectations," allowing communists to recruit impatient young men. The psychoanalytic perspective, Nils Gilman has pointed out, "positioned the social scientist as a dispassionate physician, lording his wisdom over a post-colonial nation bereft of legitimate subjectivity." CENIS and Social Science Research Council studies borrowed across disciplinary lines in ways that disregarded the objectivity standards of any single discipline. The medley of terminologies threw a protective screen around political or cultural presuppositions and tendentious reasoning.
The format of CENIS dialogue encouraged participants to theorize from an interlocking set of reified concepts. Much like the Marxist doctrine it responded to, Rostovian theory achieved its plausibility and explanatory power from the tight fit between its conceptual parts, rather than from the correspondence between any of the parts and the actual conditions they were meant to describe. David Lerner's pithy Passing of Traditional Society reveals the appeal and versatility of the CENIS schema. Lerner framed his study in a parable of modernization in the Turkish village of Balgat, where in 1950 a U.S. Information Agency interviewer recorded the opinions of several hundred villagers. Of these, three stood out: the village chief, a grocer, and a shepherd. The very act of soliciting opinions disturbed the chief and the shepherd, who balked at stating their views of distant leaders and nations. The grocer, on the other hand, was brimming with opinions, particularly regarding other people's business. Moreover, the interviewer learned that villagers sought out the grocer's opinions on such issues as what movies to watch when they visited Ankara. The chief and the shepherd, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, were pious, contented, and cautious; the grocer, a marginal figure, was skeptical, self-conscious, and with an eye for the main chance.
Lerner's theme is the psychology of the "transitional personality," the grocers whose rest-lessness would unsettle established orders and lifeways, hastening the advent of modernity. When Lerner first visited Balgat in 1954 he found the village transformed. A new road and bus line, as well as municipal water and electricity, made it a suburb of the capital. The shepherd and his sheep had moved on, the chief's sons were now grocers, and the original grocer was dead but remembered as a prophet. For Lerner, the human instrument of modernization was the "mobile personality," the individual with a capacity to envision himself in another's place, a place better than his own. "Empathy," as Lerner called this quality, stirred people from traditional apathy, leading them to question old ways and hierarchies and making them full participants in the economic and political life of the new nation. Lerner's theory later provided a conceptual foundation for the strategic hamlet program and the forced depopulation of the Vietnamese countryside as a counterinsurgency measure. Pacification specialists expected relocation to generate mobile personalities among the refugees, stimulating them to discard village loyalties in favor of participation in national life.
With interviews and charts, Lerner established a relationship between the spread of mass media and the proliferation of the mobile psyche, but his empirical observations actually contradicted the implied link between psychology and material improvement. Lerner noted that neither the grocer nor anyone in Balgat had a hand in decisions about the bus service, water lines, or electricity. Balgatis ratified the changes by voting for the new ruling party and by preserving social hierarchies within the village and between the village and the center of power. Modernization came without help or hindrance from mobile personalities. Such discrepancies, however, did not disturb the model or its conclusions, which concern correlations among abstract variables (mass media, participation, satisfaction). The Rostovian approach answered structuralism by making structural inequities into one variable among many and eliding questions of causation and proportion. The result was a uniquely resilient theory, capable of absorbing and explaining away nearly any failure or challenge. Even nation building in Vietnam, Rostow later wrote, was a developmental triumph marred by "a difficult war."
Rostovian doctrine drew fire within social science disciplines ( Stages got hammered by reviewers in economics journals) and from some generalists and policymakers who saw political agendas beneath the elaborate taxonomies. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith noted that claims of aid's ability to induce takeoff were "convenient" considering that "once we admit that it is not the case, we become trapped in a series of previously complex problems." Louis Halle, a former State Department planner, found Stages to be "one long boast" about an idealized America leading the world into the future. It also evoked a suspiciously tidy vision of history: "this great, multifarious, fluid, and largely unknown world of ours is conceived as a child's plaything made up of a very few building blocks, all square and solid."
The CENIS framework gained the status of an orthodoxy almost overnight, an achievement that can be attributed to factors other than its strengths as theory. First, it furnished academic analysts and policymakers with a common language and a set of criteria for evaluating foreign aid as something other than a bribe offered in exchange for cooperation with U.S. policies. Second, it was a culmination of the social scientific enterprise initiated by Mill and Comte. While academics were eager to point out its imperfections, they were reluctant to question its perfectibility, because to do so was to challenge fundamental parts of the social scientific method (the comparability of societies, the application of reason to social change, the nature of progress). Finally, Rostovian theory resonated with American myths of national mission. It gave the United States the power and privilege of stepping in at the decisive moment in each nation's history to dispense the vital ingredients of progress. By touching societies that mirrored its own past, the United States could rescue itself from the decay and boredom of mass-consumption society. Two slogans Rostow contributed to the Kennedy campaign—the New Frontier and Let's Get America Moving Again—carried this message of regeneration. Development, in this formulation, was able for the first time to capture the popular imagination.